“This last year was super boring; except for the month we made this record . It sounds like it probably took longer, but it was just a month. The rest of the time I was twiddling my thumbs, bored out of my skull.”
After two and a half years since the release of Tomorrow Morning, you can tell Mark ‘E.’ Everett is eager to get back into Eels mode again. Even though this is one of the most forced, artificial situations in which you could ever meet someone to talk about their art (a swanky but characterless hotel room in Kensington), he’s nothing but welcoming and forthcoming, as I assume he is to the ten or so other people lined up after me, armed with questions that are probably quite similar.
Wonderful, Glorious, Eels’ tenth album in a career that stretches back 20 years, is one of the most inventive and sonically adventurous in their canon. So comprehensively thought out does it seem that if he told me he’d started it the minute he finished Tomorrow Morning, I’d not have batted an eyelid, no matter how handsome his beard and beaming his smile. Why, then, did it all come together so quickly?
E.: “This was the one time we went to make a record without any preconceived concept of what I wanted the album to be. It could have been a disaster, but it turned out OK I think. We moved into a place where the whole house was a studio, and utilised every nook and cranny. We’d made all the previous records in the same tiny basement, which had gotten so piled up with instruments that we couldn’t function anymore. Seating was at a premium! There were altercations that were… couch based. There were a lot of ugly fights between my bass player, Kool G Murder, and my dog Bobby Jr. The other thing we can do now that we couldn’t before is set up as a five piece and all play live. Most of the time songs used to be built up piece by piece, now some of these new ones are actually us all playing, in one take.”
It’s an approach that provides the record a tangible energy and zeal. It’s also the first Eels album on which their front man sounds like just that, a front man, rather than the only guy whose name was worth remembering in a band who could pretty much be anybody. What brought about this more collaborative approach?
E.: “I’ve always been open to ideas, but would often go ‘that sounds terrible, let’s not try it’. This time, no matter how terrible it sounded, I’d say ‘OK, let’s try it!’ And it turns out I was wrong a lot of the time. There’s a song called ‘You’re My Friend’ with this clicking thing that comes in – that was Knuckles’ idea, the drummer. He wanted to try hitting his drumsticks on a stepladder. I said, ‘that sounds awful, but ok…’ Of course, it’s one of my favourite things about the song.”
Would it be right to call it one of your more optimistic records? And why do you think people often seem to think of Eels as a really downbeat thing?
E.: “Well, anyone’s who’s paying attention can see that is always there in the name of getting to a brighter place. There’s a reason the album starts with ‘Bombs Away’, which is coming from a darker place, and ends up with the title track at the end, which is getting to a very bright place. It’s all about how you’ve got to go through all the dark places to get to the brighter place.”
The album hits its stride at its centre, the sombre reflections of ‘The Turnaround’ contrasting expertly with the comparative buoyancy of ‘New Alphabet’. I wonder why juxtapositions like that interest him as a songwriter.
E.: “Both those songs are kind of about the same thing; they’re both in the middle of the record for a reason. Right before ‘The Turnaround’ is one called ‘On the Ropes’ which is about fighting your way out of a jam. Then ‘The Turnaround’ is about taking the first steps towards making your life better. ‘New Alphabet’ takes it a little further; it’s about how if shit isn’t working, you’ve got to figure out how to fix it.”
Not ‘New Alphabet’ so much, but a lot of the record’s most lyrically optimistic songs are set against a musical backdrop that’s quite jarring…
E.: “Man, that’s the opposite of the Motown recipe for a hit! I got them mixed up – should be sad lyrics, happy music!”
‘Peach Blossom’, the album’s lead single, is a prime example of how not to go down that Motown path. What made it the song from the record you wanted people to hear first?
E.: “I like that one. I think that might have been the first one we did. The record label wanted to do something else, but I thought it would be a nice one for people to hear first, because it’s a little unusual. I was actually in crash position, thinking ‘people might hate this’! It’s pretty unconventional in that the verses are spoken, and like a lot of these songs it’s like, five songs in one. But people seem to like it so far. Once in a while, I get lucky.”
As usual for an Eels record, much more was recorded than was actually used in the final track listing. What made the cut, and why?
E.: “Well, there was a lot more done. It’s particularly hard these days because of things like bonus tracks and deluxe editions…”
Which is something you guys have never scrimped on… (perhaps their best known tune, ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues – “goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day, uh huh!” – appeared as a bonus track on Daisies of the Galaxy)
E.: “Well, we really went for it this time! That’s the hardest part, worrying what belongs on the album, and what you deem good enough to be a bonus track… but then there’s this uncomfortable situation, you start thinking ‘is this too good to be a bonus track?’ You don’t want to put just junk out! But at the same time there’s some songs that we recorded that we thought these are too good to just use as bonus tracks, we’ll just save them for something later. Probably a reason that they weren’t included is that they thematically didn’t fit in. Like, one I thought was just too sad. They’re still good, they’re just not right for this record.”
Are you quite the self-editor?
E.: “Not when I’m writing. The one that’s too sad, I didn’t think about it as being too sad when we were writing it, but once it was done I realised it didn’t fit in to the album. That’s when the editing starts, not during the writing.”
With all these bonus tracks and special editions, do you feel like you have to give people an extra incentive to go out and buy a record now?
E.: “Apparently that’s why we all do it! But apparently, you can’t just make an album now; you have to make an album and a bunch of extra shit. The job just keeps getting tougher!”
Of course, the years since 2010 haven’t just been spent thumb twiddling. Mr. Everett has also found the time to delve deep into his past, surfacing with not only an autobiography but a wonderful documentary about the life of his fascinating scientist father. Did doing such extensive research into one’s personal history impact on his song writing at all?
E.: “It did, but in a way it painted me in to a corner. I was dealing with my past and my life so extensively that I got to a stage when it was like… shit, now what do I do? That’s reflected in a lot of the lyrics on this album. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I was feeling kind of artistically lost. So we made a record with no plan, and this is what came out of it.”
Was it at all beneficial to go out and do something else, and come back fresher, perhaps even with more frame of reference and life experience to inform the songs?
E.: “Well, when you do one thing for so long you become too conscious of the headaches involved. So I started to think it might be a relief to go do something else. Then I found out the headaches are worse for everything else. Music headaches are really not that bad. I always come back to being happiest making music.”
What with the record coming together so quickly, did you have time to pause and think how things were going to come together when you played them live?
E.: “No. I continuously seem to paint myself into hard to get out of corners when it comes to performing live because I don’t ever consider that when I’m making something new. I don’t want to edit myself – what if The Beatles did that during Sgt. Pepper’s, if they’d said; ‘meh, maybe we’re not going to do that thing with the orchestra…’? But they were smart; they were just like, ‘we’re not going to play live’! Sadly I don’t have that situation. I don’t know how we’re going to do some of it. That’s the next thing I’ve got to figure out.
Does it ever feel like once a record’s finished, the real work starts?
E.: “Yeah, and it’s fun! There’s always something to occupy your mind. When you’ve finished with a record, you don’t think about that any more, you just think, what’s the task at hand? That’s what I have to do after this, go home and figure out how it’s going to shape out. We’ve definitely created some challenges for ourselves with this one. I’m not really sure how we’re going to do this. We might have to bring stepladders. It might be an all stepladder band.”
Whether as a stepladder orchestra, actual proper orchestra or three piece rock band, Eels remain a huge international live draw. I tell him that seeing a band having London’s Brixton Academy on their tour schedule always makes me think ‘man, that’s a big band’.
E.: “Really? We played there last time… It’s amazing to me that 20 years after I started I’m still able to do it. I feel very lucky. It’s such a nice feeling to just stick to your guns over the years. It wasn’t easy; there were a lot of hard, lonely times where I felt I was the only one who believed in what I was doing. But to do that for so many years and for it to add up anything… it’s been miraculous. I mean, it’s amazing that I ever got to make one record, let alone ten.”
Does it ever feel like a job?
E.: At times…
Like when you have to speak to people like me!
E.: “No offence, but like doing this, yeah! This is a weird thing to do. And it’s hard to do. I basically do this over and over for 8 hours a day for a whole week, and then a lot more on the telephone, but I’ve constantly got to remind myself that there’s worse things in the world than people caring about your work. And I know what it’s like when they don’t care.”
Having spent 20 years in the game is a statistic that becomes all the more commendable when you think of the kind of bands who were emerging at the same times as Eels. For every Radiohead or Beck, there are thousands of acts like Smashmouth, Garbage or Third Eye Blind, bands whose histories detail initial commercial and critical praise before a decline that has lead most folk, with hindsight, to conclude that actually they were completely rubbish all along. Is there anyone E. feels a kinship with from those days? And what’s kept him from a similar fate?
E.: “The early Eels days? The mid-Nineties? Hmm… Yeah, what happened to all them?! I guess that’s why I feel so grateful that I’m still around. I don’t really remember who was around anyway. I was never big on the mid nineties. There was some good stuff, for sure. But I’m definitely more about the icons and the classics, that’s the stuff I still look to for inspiration. I just think, why not go to the best?
Is there anyone in particular you could pinpoint as an inspiration on Wonderful, Glorious?
E.: “There are some songs on here that really are their own thing. I don’t know what to compare them to. There are little sections here and there that are obviously influenced by something, like in the title track there’s a section that’s obviously this Phil Spector thing. But I don’t hear a lot of new stuff. I guess the most recent things were Alt-J and Michael Kawani… how do you say that?”
E.: “I can never say that right. I like him a lot. Alt-J is just really original, which is always a good thing. And Michael Kawinu… whatever… he’s just really good at what he does. It’s not necessarily something new, but it’s just so well done that it doesn’t matter.”
And perhaps it’s exactly that which has kept people interested in Eels for all these years. Despite not having been press darlings or in the midst of any particular trend for a fair while now, their upcoming UK tour will see the same collection of fans – who, thanks to the virtue of having been around so long, now include as many serious singer songwriter, folk-y types as they do the grunge rock kids hearing ‘Susan’s House’ for the first time – turning out in their thousands. E.’s aware of this country’s particular affection for him, and certainly humbled.
E.: “It’s always been interesting to me that England appreciates what I do. And I have a theory. I don’t know if this is accurate, but it’s to do with the whole stiff upper lip English thing, about you not showing your emotions. I just think it must be such a great relief to hear someone emoting so much! You can vicariously live through me, whilst keeping your stiff upper lip. We show our emotions a lot more in America. It’s just a big love fest.”